March Anxiety: Alcoholism and Mental Health

Whilst deciding what issue I would like to focus on for this monthly anxiety article for March, I found myself debating a few different ideas. World Bi-Polar Day, Self-Injury Awareness Day and University Mental Health Day all provided such interesting angles to take, so it would prove difficult to narrow down the topic. In the end I decided to go a different route altogether.

With it being St. Patrick’s Day next week, I thought it might be interesting to focus on a topic I’ve been meaning to cover on this blog and haven’t yet gotten around to: Addiction. Now I know St. Patrick’s Day is a lot more than just drinking and I want to clarify that immediately as I’d hate to give a negative impression of a holiday many people enjoy. This being said, I live in Ireland, and I’m all too familiar with just how much alcohol and St. Patrick’s Day go together.

I think this topic has been a long time coming, and is even more important this year than any other. During the past year countless people have become more and more reliant on alcohol in order to help them cope with the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic, and this reliance has led to a lot of mental health issues and in extreme cases, death.

In this post we will be discussing what alcoholism is, how it affects us both physically and mentally, and finally some methods on how you can go about beating this addiction. So without further ado:

What is Alcoholism:  How is Alcohol Addictive and What are the Causes?

Simply put, alcoholism, otherwise known as Alcoholic Use Disorder (AUD) is the development of an addiction to alcohol which can lead to health problems. You may find yourself asking ‘What makes Alcohol so addictive?’, and thankfully, it’s actually a rather easy question to answer. Alcohol is addictive because it releases dopamine, a neural transmitter that can create feelings of pleasure for us. Simply put, it has the ability to make us feel better.

However, whilst these signals that are sent to the reward centre of our brain can make us feel happy and pleasured, this can quickly spiral into a negative for several reasons. Firstly, if a certain activity creates these positive feelings, we can quickly become compelled to create these feelings regardless of the impact it can have to our health. Unfortunately with alcohol, the more we consume the higher our tolerance grows, and this means in order to get this fix of dopamine, we have to indulge deeper and deeper each time.

With regards to the causes of alcoholism, this is where things get slightly trickier to explain. It may seem as simple as ‘you drink, you become addicted instantly’, but there is far more to it than this and the addiction can actually be influenced by several factors, including the following:

Social Environment: For some affected by alcohol addiction, one of the main causes may have been through the influence of their environment. For example, teenagers can start drinking from a young age due to the influence of others and through peer pressure, and this can start that early pathway to addiction. Alternatively, you may work in an environment that promotes daily after-work drinking and socially rewards those who attend. With these range of social factors that play a part in all of our lives, it is definitely possible that the situations which involve alcohol consistently can encourage the addiction to take hold.

Past Trauma: People who have experienced trauma in their lives can fall into addictive habits quite easily. As mentioned above, alcohol creates a feeling of pleasure and those who may have experienced physical or emotional pain through an assortment of potential traumas, may use this to their advantage to literally ‘drown their sorrows’ with a wave of manufactured happiness.

Mental Health: For those who suffer from other mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety, it can just as easy to use alcohol as a form of self-medication in order to relieve some of the symptoms. The feeling of being drunk can make those with depression have a feeling of pleasure which they otherwise might not feel they have access to, whilst those with anxiety, and in particular social anxiety disorders, may use alcohol as a sort of numbing agent to relax them in uncomfortable situations. However, this can lead to a reliance on alcohol to create these feelings every time we struggle.

Family History: Believe it or not, studies have shown that those who come from a family background that includes alcoholism, are more likely to develop the addiction themselves. Whilst some of these studies have linked addiction to certain genetic factors, the link between family history and alcoholism doesn’t have to be as complicated. For example, if you grew up in a family where your parents were alcoholics, you may not have been given the amount of attention/love required in your formative years, and this could lead to you mimicking their behaviour with alcohol as a substitute for this. I have experienced this first-hand. My parents are both alcoholics and this lead to me drinking quite a lot from as early as thirteen years old.  

Obviously there are many more causes that can lead to us becoming addicted to alcohol, and these tend to be unique for each person despite parallels that can be seen. For additional information on these causes and more, check out this article by American Addiction Centres.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

When discussing the symptoms of alcoholism, I find it’s best to consider three different categories: Physical, behavioural and emotional. Whilst I know there are a lot of variables depending on the person and the situation, this will help us break down the most commonly appearing symptoms.

Physical Symptoms

With most forms of addiction, be it alcohol or otherwise, there tends to be an array of physical symptoms attached. However, with alcohol addiction, the condition can cause more severe symptoms and in some cases can even lead to death. Some of the warning signs to look out for if you think you may be becoming addicted yourself or know somebody else who may be, are as follows:

  • Fluctuations in Weight: Over-consumption of alcohol can cause a loss of appetite which can lead to substantial weight loss over time. On the other side of this scale, alcohol can lower our inhibitions and lead to us over-indulging on unhealthy food, causing us to gain a lot of weight.
  • Bad Personal Hygiene: Those who become addicted to alcohol tend to prioritise this addiction over other things in their lives such as grooming. Those with severe dependency in alcohol could look dishevelled, tired or in some cases even smell of residual alcohol.
  • Liver Problems: In extreme cases of AUD, we can so seriously damage our liver it can lead to a yellow colouration of the skin (Jaundice) and liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver which is essentially irreversible). Regarding the latter, continuing to drink with cirrhosis can put you at extreme risk of a quick death.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: When someone suffering from alcoholism stops drinking, they can go through a range of withdrawal symptoms including nausea, tremors and headaches, to name only a few. In order to reduce the severity of these symptoms, those suffering will begin to drink again.

Behaviour Symptoms

With addiction to substances such as alcohol or drugs, the compulsions can have quite a large impact on our behaviour. Whilst each decision we make may be ours, they become slightly less inhibited and more erratic. The most common changes to the behavioural patterns to those suffering from alcoholism are as follows:

  • Becoming Volatile: Those who drink alcohol consistently can find themselves becoming more irrationally unpredictable as described above. This can cause people who are usually pretty collected to lash out uncontrollably in anger and aggression when they have had too much to drink, or even when confronted about their potential addiction.
  • Being Secretive: Being addicted to alcohol can cause those affected to put up walls of secrecy to those around them in order to hide this addiction. This can cause them to hide their alcohol, consume it alone behind closed doors and lie to their loved ones in order to cover up their struggles.
  • Drinking in Reckless Situations: As mentioned above, our inhibitions are gradually lowered the more we drink. For those suffering from AUD, it can cause them to drink whilst driving or potentially in dangerous situations without much thought to the potential consequences.

Emotional Symptoms

With the emotional aspects of alcoholism, there isn’t so much a list of potential symptoms like the above, but rather a vast range depending on the person and situation. Whilst I mentioned above that those experiencing another mental health issue such as depression or anxiety can be one of the factors encouraging an addiction to alcohol, this can also go in the reverse order. Those who are dealing with alcoholism can find themselves feeling overwhelmingly depressed when they sober up. Alcohol can also be linked to anxiety, self-harm and even suicide.

This is what makes AUD so dangerous. It creates so many differences to us physically, behaviourally and emotionally and can make us come out the other side a very different person than when we started. This being said, there are many ways we can get help and begin to fight this addiction.

How Can You Start to Overcome this Addiction?

I really debated how to phrase this section of the article, as I know just how difficult it can be to beat an addiction and I don’t want to seem patronising. I settled on overcoming. It’s a gradual process, we slowly but surely grow and get through it to the other side. Now the following tips aren’t full-proof and there are countless alcoholics who have tried some or all of these and still couldn’t stop drinking, but they are definitely a jumping off point for those looking to make the first step.

Address the Issue: Like many issues in life, be they mild or severe, the first step to addressing the problem is, generic as it may sound, admitting and acknowledging that you have one. For those suffering from AUD, this can be quite a tricky first step to accomplish, and sometimes even those who acknowledge the problem aren’t able to do anything about it, but just being honest with yourself and telling yourself that you need to work on it is enough.

Reach Out for Help: The previous point on acknowledgment brings us to this. Once you know you have a problem and think you might need help in sorting it, then the next step is to reach out and ask for that help. This is easier said than done but there are so many options available, be it speaking to your friends and family, your GP or going to a support group such as AA. Especially considering the latter of these options, going to alcoholic support groups allows you make progress whilst surrounding yourself with others doing the same, which can make things a little easier in the long run.

Whilst it may not seem like the most obvious option for those who are struggling with addiction, another option on this side of things would be to look for a therapist/counsellor. Speaking to a professional in this field can provide you with help in many different ways. Firstly, a therapist will be able to assist you in identifying your triggers which will allow you to avoid or find a way to get through them, which eases a lot of the pressure we place on ourselves. Secondly, speaking with a counsellor or therapist who specialises in a psychodynamic approach, can allow you to explore your addiction, figure out where it started and also explore it from a different perspective that you previously weren’t able to, having someone close by in case this becomes too difficult.

Set Realistic Goals: When it comes to quitting a bad habit, especially one as difficult as alcohol, it can help by not expecting to get it perfect first try, or even second try for that matter. Being able to set yourself smaller, more realistic goals will allow more achievable results. One thing recommended to those trying to stop drinking is to avoid quitting cold turkey. The withdrawal symptoms you go through if this is attempted can do you a lot more harm than good and it is recommended by most GP’s that this should be a gradual process.

Perhaps you can start by simply stopping certain aspects of your addiction. Try to reduce binge drinking and instead focus on staying within the government guidelines for alcohol consumption. Once you’ve nailed this then go a step further. With serious addiction it’s all about our own motivation to stop. Now I’m not saying those who are unmotivated aren’t capable of doing it, just that people who feel they are ready to quit, and ready to take those careful and steady steps to get where they need to, tend to have an easier journey.

Reward Yourself: This leads on from my last point nicely. If you are making progress and getting there slowly but surely, then take the time to acknowledge this and reward yourself. Those familiar with the AA set-up will be aware of the milestone coins/chips given out to those who are sober for a given amount of time. These are there to act as tokens to remind you of how far you’ve come. If you’re not in a support group, there are other ways to achieve the same result.

If you’ve achieved a milestone you’re excited about and are proud of yourself, then do something to celebrate. It can be as small as treating yourself to a nice meal or something bigger such as an extravagant purchase you otherwise wouldn’t make, just find whatever works with you. If you think about it, alcoholism is an extremely expensive addiction, so if possible when cutting down and ultimately stopping, set aside some of the money you’ve saved and use it on something to keep your motivations high, you deserve it.

These are only a handful of the suggestions given to those trying to overcome an addiction like alcohol, and with some searching you’ll find the ones that work for you. One thing I do want to note before wrapping up this post is the following disclosure: I am not an expert on addiction or alcoholism. I have experienced addiction and I am still working on aspects of addictive habits in my life. I don’t claim that the above will solve all of your problems or provide a step-by-step guide that guarantees sobriety, but these suggestions aren’t just my own, they are well founded tools given to those who need it, and if they help then I’m very glad. For those of you who want to learn more about alcohol addiction, please visit Drinkaware or We Are With You.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to learn more about mental health awareness and training, be sure to follow my blog here. Do you struggle with addiction? Did you find the suggestions above useful? Can you suggest any other helpful tips for coping that I forgot to mention? Let me know in the comments down below.

If you’re experiencing any of the feelings described in this post, or know somebody who is, then there are many things you can do to help. Talking to somebody about how you or they are feeling can be very beneficial. If you’re not sure what to do but need urgent help, there are many emergency hotlines that provide support and encouragement such as Mind.org and Samaritans.org. You’re not alone in feeling this way, others are there to help.

Published by AnxietyBear

Opening a conversation around the topic of mental health. Providing support and advice. Exploring personal experiences.

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